Attending to the Lord's Affairs
(Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 7:32-37; Mark 1:21-28)
Introduction to Mass
In today's gospel passage St. Mark highlights the deep impression Jesus' teaching and activity make on the crowds of people who witness him. He seems to exude great authority, arising from his close acquaintance with God and familiarity with spiritual reality. In the second reading St. Paul talks about the value of declining marriage and family commitments in order to be more single-mindedly devoted to God - a very ancient Christian practice, in fact.
To begin Mass let's ask God to forgive our trespasses and to help us to forgive those who have trespassed against us.
In the first chapter of his gospel St. Mark lists the main activities which made up Jesus' public ministry: his preaching and teaching, his physical healings and his exorcisms. Both by word and action Jesus established God's Kingdom among the people he proclaimed his "Good News" to.
In the few verses that make up this Sunday's gospel St. Mark highlights the people's reaction to Jesus. His teaching made a deep impression on them, Mark says, because he taught them with authority. The depth of Jesus' preaching, his healing power, his effortless command over the unclean spirits all seemed to signify the spiritual authority of someone who wasn't only close to God in the way that so many other wise rabbis, healers and exorcists were. It marked him out as someone who was uniquely close to God.
Mark is writing of course some years after Jesus' death and resurrection as somebody who has reached the conclusion that Jesus is the Saviour, the Messiah, God made man. And he's writing for communities of fellow-Christians who believe the same.
These first followers of Christ reflected on the long period of time that Jesus spent in obscurity before the start of his ministry - the period of his childhood, adolescence and early adulthood - and they saw that period as above all a time of preparation, a time when his unique relationship with God was gradually evolving and solidifying.
By the time Jesus actually stepped forward to begin his public work he had already attained a degree of spiritual development which showed itself very vividly in the quality of his teaching and in the air of authority he had.
The first reading this Sunday invites a comparison between Jesus and an earlier spiritual leader who was venerated in Jewish tradition - Moses.
Moses was a real historical figure who had assumed legendary status. He was someone who had been inspired by God to carry out a unique mission: to lead the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and form them into the chosen People of God. He was the architect of a new community, whose identity lay in its special Covenant with God. He was also a prophet, in the sense that God's will was communicated to him and he then had the task of announcing that will to the people. He was seen as a liberator, defeating the Pharaoh and leading his people into freedom.
It was easy for the first Christians, especially those from Jewish background, to see Jesus as a new and even greater Moses.
He was a prophetic figure: he was united to God through his own interior prayer and his passionate dedication to God's purposes. His whole identity was formed by listening to God's word and then announcing it to the community.
Jesus was the architect of a new community of faith in God and the inaugurator of a new Covenant. He was saviour and liberator, freeing those who came into God's Kingdom from the slavery of sin. During his ministry his healings and exorcisms were a dramatic demonstration of the liberation from evil forces which accompanies the irruption of God's Kingdom.
The second reading, lastly, contains a few more lines from St. Paul's first letter to the Church community at Corinth. If the gospel paints a picture of Christ's authority and his role as a new Moses, the second reading is addressed to those who recognise Christ's authority and accept him as head of the new community of salvation, the Church.
Paul's main point in these verses seems to be a relatively narrow one: for anyone who wants to devote themselves primarily to "the Lord's affairs", as he puts it, there's an obvious advantage in remaining unmarried and therefore free from the commitments of marriage and family life.
St. Paul wasn't alone in this opinion. From the earliest days of the Church's existence there was a tendency to value the single state for a variety of reasons: as a way of anticipating the future Kingdom, where there will be no marriage or family relationships; as a way of freeing men to concentrate on the duties and activities of pastoral leadership; and as a way for men and women to embrace a more exclusive vocation to prayer and contemplation.
The principle Paul is putting forward here soon got institutionalised in the Christian monastic life, the whole point of which was to cater for men and women who felt called to give "undivided attention to the Lord", in Paul's own phrase.
In more recent times there seem to have been signs that some Christian men and women today also feel pulled towards a more single-minded dedication to God, and it has led many of them to commit themselves to remaining unmarried, sometimes by a formal vow, while continuing to live and work in ordinary circumstances in society.
Their experience chimes with St. Paul's sentiments. They see the wisdom of giving up the obligations of family life so as to concentrate their time and effort on their relationship with God and, often, on some form of practical Christian service.
But having said that, let's add that we shouldn't make a fetish out of the single state, as though it's impossible for people with families to devote themselves fully to God. We have to remember that the basic Christian vocation, before any kind of differentiation takes place, is the vocation to discipleship: believing in and following and imitating Christ.
The call to monastic life is exceptional, and the single state is always going to be the vocation of a minority. It's worth reflecting that although the monastic vows by their very nature involve renunciation and hard discipline, their value lies precisely in the fact that they simplify the individual's spiritual efforts by removing the distractions and complications of ordinary social life.
Most Christian believers don't have the advantage of that simplification. Their attempts to live out the gospel have got to be worked out among all the complexities and conflicts of modern life, often in circumstances which they don't choose for themselves and alongside people who are positively unfriendly to Christian values.
Prayer, openness to God's grace, the will to grow in holiness of character and behave lovingly towards other people, are the priorities of every disciple, not just those who have a particular religious vocation. The large majority of Christians - those with wives, husbands, children, jobs and other commitments - will face different choices and dilemmas from those faced by contemplative monks and nuns. But the final goal is exactly the same.
So nobody should feel slighted by St. Paul's emphasis on the great value of remaining single so as to give God "undivided attention". It's important to remember that it's possible to find God whatever our situation is in life and that the people who keep trying to move forward in their journey to God, despite all kinds of obstacles, are actually doing everything they're supposed to do and everything that God expects of them.
To sum up, then: Christ is our saviour, our leader, and we're under his authority. His "new teaching" liberates us into fullness of life. We're all called to embrace that fullness of life, and for some people that means living a more pronounced solitude. That shouldn't lead us to undervalue the more commonplace forms of discipleship which lead us into communion with God just as well.
Those are the lessons I suggest we take from this Sunday's three readings.